The Art of Cover - I
AS OPEN WARFARE DEPENDS UPON WEAPONS, SO DOES THE secret war depend upon cover. Weapons are not in themselves the purpose of war, but they shield the soldier and enable him to advance to his objective - or they protect his retreat. Cover shields the secret agent from his opposition. It puts him into position to accomplish his mission. Ideally, it should also protect the mission against at least the worst consequences of the agent's being uncovered. Dealing as it does with human beings, their relations to each other, with what they feel and believe, with their habits and impressions, their insights and their actions, cover is an art.
During the Second World War an Englishman whom we shall call Geoffrey was living in Tangier. As a mildly eccentric bachelor whose small private income enabled him to indulge his liking for the climate, the good life, and a certain sense of the exotic, Geoffrey had already spent some years there. In peacetime, he was no different from the majority of other members of the Tangier British community. In other words, his cover for his work as a British intelligence agent - which he was - made sense precisely because he didn't stand out.
The outbreak of war changed that. In fact, the problem became exactly the reverse. For Geoffrey to continue and to cultivate those Axis contracts which were desired, he now had to have a cover which would isolate him from his fellow-Britishers. It had to be one which would explain his continued presence in Tangier, and would make him acceptable to his German, Italian and Spanish sources. It would certainly not be sufficient for him merely to pose as a pro-Axis Englishman; it is the fate of turncoats, usually unforeseen by them, to be regarded with double suspicion by their new-found friends. There is always a counterespionage official somewhere who continues to suspect that even the most sincere defector is a double agent.
Something was needed which would lend authenticity to Geoffrey's banal - in the eyes of covert operations professionals-protestations of pro-Axis sentiments. Like most Englishmen of his class, Geoffrey had various scrapes in his past, and was given to occasional hell-raising of sorts. It was decided to play up this aspect of Geoffrey; in fact, to put on the act of the Englishman going native, running to seed in his exile - a sort of Somerset Maugham China Seas character in a North African setting. But it had to be authentic; Geoffrey had to live his cover, as the professional saying has it.
He did so. He went from women to men, from alcohol to drugs, and from bad to worse. Geoffrey perfectly fitted the Nazi preconceptions of the errant, degenerate Englishman. He was not simply isolated from his compatriots. He lived in a sea of their opprobrium. In London his superiors had an easy check on his progress simply by reference to the number and the violence of denunciations of Geoffrey by Britishers - some themselves agents, but unwitting. But Geoffrey successfully accomplished his mission. He never once gave away his cover. Even after it was all over he didn't give it away. And it killed him. It wasn't just the drugs and alcohol; the hatred and contempt of people one likes can easily be physically unbearable.
Not all cover is as dramatic, or as damaging, as Geoffrey's. But all good cover owes its success to the element which made Geoffrey's so effective: it reaches into the mind of the opponent, thinks as he would think, and then creates a combination of fact and fancy, of actual arrangements and contrived impressions, which the opposing mind is prepared to believe. In all human conflict the stronger man is he who can think as his enemy thinks - can read his mind, as we say - and the victor is he who seizes the advantage this gives him. Hannibal at Cannae, Nelson on the Nile, Togo at Tsushima, Bradley in Normandy - all demonstrated, and then exploited, this ability in its most dramatic form. Its value is as true in covert operations as in commercial competition, in secret as in open warfare. Good cover cannot be created without this ability. The competent agent knows that, in this sense, good cover is an intimate relationship between deceiver and deceived. And in the strangely altered world of covert operations, in which real and unreal change places hourly, the deceived are necessarily both friend and foe.
Cover takes an infinite variety of forms. Certainly the commonest - and widely used by people outside of covert operations, including bankers, ambassadors and lovers - is the large cocktail party or diplomatic reception. At these affairs, meetings and conversations which would be for one reason or another undesirable if deliberately arranged elsewhere can take place seemingly casually - under the cover of the cocktail party.
The budget of the United States Government is itself a cover. Buried in it is the budget of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose funds are nowhere publicly recorded, but are instead scattered about through the appropriations of the rest of the Government in a manner that is reportedly proof against even the closest scrutiny. In other words, the Central Intelligence Agency receives its appropriations under the cover of the Federal Budget.
Cover may be no more than a story. The cover story is most frequently used to explain the visible evidences of a clandestine operation, or to provide an explanation when an operation encounters difficulties. The U-2 flights, for example, operated - at least on their own bases - under cover of meteorological research. When the Soviets protested what turned out to be Power's violation of their frontiers, a previously prepared cover story was given out by the N.A.S.A. stating that these were meteorological research flights, and that on this occasion the pilot reported having difficulty with his oxygen equipment while on a triangular flight course within Turkey, one leg of which brought him close to the Soviet border. The story went on to state that it was therefore assumed that the pilot lost consciousness and, while unconscious, inadvertently crossed the Soviet border.
The failure of this cover story illustrates - among other things - several points about cover stories in general; they should not be too precise, nor too detailed, and they should not be forthcoming too quickly, nor all at once.
When Bulganin and Khrushchev paid their official visit to Great Britain aboard a Soviet heavy cruiser, there was great Western interest in the ship itself. In the midst of the visit the Russians protested that the ship had been attacked in Portsmouth Harbour by a frogman. Whatever was the true mission of Commander Crabbe, the British Admiralty's underwater expert, it was clear from the Soviet protest at the time, and from the Commander's disappearance, that the Russians caught him. British official announcements on the subject were quite some time in coming. When they came, they came piecemeal. First there was an announcement about the mysterious disappearance of a man who had registered at a Portsmouth hotel. It was some time before a further announcement gave his name. Then a newspaper reporter uncovered the fact that he had arrived in Portsmouth with under-water diving equipment. To this there was an official announcement, eventually, that investigation showed Commander Crabbe occasionally did some research on underwater work for the Admiralty, under contract. This was followed, later, by a denial that Commander Crabbe had been on official business when he visited Portsmouth, and that was the last officially spoken on the subject. Throughout all these statements there was an air of vagueness, implying alternatively that Commander Crabbe didn't exist, or that he was such a tremendous enthusiast for underwater diving that it was highly probable he had gone to Portsmouth on his own for several days of his favourite sport.
To be too precise in a cover story qualitatively increases the chances of repudiation of the story; to be too detailed increases those chances quantitatively. To speak out too fast is to show your hand before you know all you can about what your opponent is holding in his; and to tell all in one bleat eliminates your chances to improvise as the Situation develops. The proof of this British pudding lay in the fact that the Soviet visit went on to its planned completion, and, following their single protest, the Russians dropped the matter.
It is typical of the peculiar combination of drama and irony characterizing covert operations that, at the same time that Commander Crabbe was being discovered by the Russian watch aboard the Sverdlovsk in Portsmouth Harbour, a Soviet espionage ring was functioning smoothly ashore in the British Underwater Detection Establishment at Portland. The principal agents were a couple who conducted their operations under the cover of a bookshop; they were well and favorably known in the neighbourhood where they lived. They were uncovered and arrested only years later, in 1961. And when this finally occurred there was considerable doubt as to their true nationality and identity. Their personal cover of false identities as Canadian subjects held up even for a time after their arrest, until American authorities came forward with a positive identification of them as American citizens with past records of Communist activity in the United States.
This couple, the Cohens - alias Kroger-lived in a quiet, residential section in a house in which was found, after their arrest, a radio transmitter and other clandestine equipment. In fact, the only proof of their involvement in espionage was radio signals from the house to the Moscow area. They themselves never received documents from the sub-agents working at the Portland Naval Base. These were transmitted to the Cohens by a cut-out who was in due course brought under British security surveillance. Even after arrest, however, the Cohens produced a cover story. It was that they had lent their house several times in their absence - as in fact they had - to friends, among them the cut-out, and they denied knowledge of the hidden equipment or of those friends' activities, or indeed any responsibility for them.
The effectiveness of the Cohens' cover story was of a very high order. It endured for a considerable time by professional standards, and even continued to confuse the investigators after the couple's activities had been revealed. (The Cohens' true identity was not uncovered until about a month after their arrest; the true identity and nationality of the cut-out - a Soviet citizen - was not actually announced until some ten months after his arrest.) Furthermore, it was not a defect in the cover which destroyed the operation; it was the matter of those radio signals. The camouflage and detection of radio signals is a separate, highly technical aspect of covert operations. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the final cover story, given after their arrest, is not to be measured by the fact that the court, in convicting and sentencing them for espionage, rejected it. Its effectiveness is more properly measured by the extent to which other agents and activities of their group were protected by the story and its accompanying delays and confusion. And who knows who and what these other agents and activities were? Moscow does; London and Washington do not. Who can properly estimate the true extent of the defeat represented by the arrest of the Cohens? Only Moscow can. This is good cover at work.
Cover is not created by recourse to a theatrical supply house. Disguise is rarely feasible. Exceptions always exist, of course, and the outstanding one in my experience is a non-moustachioed British general who periodically operates disguised as a woman. As he once said to me, "Not flashily attractive, you understand, but not motherly either. Just chic, don't you know."
In covert operations, including cover itself, that which is false is called notional. The non-existent intelligence network and false reports created for his superiors in London by the hero of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana were notional - and are a far from rare occurrence in espionage. An entire U.S. operation was once financed by a notional oil millionaire, for whom a life history and personality, complete with foibles and eccentricities - including his adamant refusal to see persons whom he was aiding financially - had to be created.
That which is true is called legitimate. (This word has been extended into a somewhat dubious phrase used by C.I.A. insiders to describe someone not in the business as "Oh, he's legitimate.")
The best cover is that which contains the least notional and the maximum possible legitimate material. Probably one of the most dramatically successful covert operations of modern times was the Soviet espionage ring in pre-war Manchuria and Japan headed by Richard Sorge, who operated as a German journalist. Everything about Sorge's cover was legitimate; its sole notional feature was his explanation of his whereabouts in the years when he had actually been living and training in the Soviet Union. He set something of a record in the realm of cover by successfully maintaining his without a single respite for nine years. In his case, as in the Cohens, his arrest was not due to the breakdown of his cover, but to his radio transmissions to the Soviet Union.
Aside from the mission itself, and the circumstances in which it is to be accomplished, the most important items in creating cover are the history, talents and personality of the agent himself. An agent without journalistic background cannot use journalistic cover. The saying, "Do not send a boy to do a man's job," has a literal meaning in the art of cover.
During the Occupation of Germany, we sent a man there whose cover was a job in one of the numerous Occupation Government offices. More than that, however, it was essential to his mission that he appear to be a low-level, obscure employee, although he was in fact a high-level covert operations official with considerable authority (and is today a high official of the U.S. Government in a quite "legitimate" field). We wanted no attention drawn to him which would interest Soviet agents in his activities, or which would make it difficult for our own agents to contact him quietly. In brief, we had left him his true identity, but we had given him a notional personality. As it turned out, his notional personality was inescapably in conflict with his true personality and talents. He hadn't been in Germany but a few months when our mistake became obvious. Driving about in a large, red convertible, he was soon immersed in every American group activity up and down the Rhine. He was President of the American Ski Club, he was a trustee of the American Church, his wife was President of the American Women's Club, his office was one of the liveliest in Germany, and his house was overrun with people gaily planning charity bazaars and Hallowe'en dances. We wanted a self-effacing, invisible man; we got a prominent community leader. The mistake could probably have been avoided if we had attached more importance to the fact that he had been President of the Student Body at his University.
Perfect cover is an ideal, rarely achieved in practice. Necessity imposes something less than perfection, and so it is sometimes necessary to resort to such a dangerous device as a notional identity. Notional identities obviously depend upon the histrionic ability of the agent, and his capacity to believe, think, eat, sleep and live his false identity. The famous Sorge, although operating under his own identity, none the less possessed this capacity to a high degree. A heavy drinker, he one night ran his motorcycle into the wall of the American Embassy in Tokyo. Taken to a hospital, he emerged from a coma some days later, but was delirious for several more days. Not once, even in his delirium, did he ever say anything which could arouse the slightest suspicion - a fact respectfully noted in his report by the Japanese official who finally tracked him down.
In the world in which we now live, notional identity also depends upon the forger. All covert services of the great powers maintain special offices for the forgery of documents and seals of all kinds. (This is one reason the U.S. Department of State gets very upset when American tourists lose their passports.) Immediately after the Second World War, before the U.S. had adequate facilities for forgery, American operations depended heavily upon private enterprise in this field. I had a man in Rome who for $500 would deliver a Venezuelan passport which he proudly said was "valid anywhere, Signor - except Venezuela." I also had a Hungarian refugee in Salzburg who, when he finally received his visa to the U.S., with which I had been able to give him some help, gratefully delivered to me his entire remaining stock, which included identity documents and border-guard seals for every country in Eastern Europe except Poland and the Soviet Union itself. Unfortunately, my Salzburg friend was not available when I once had to move an agent through the Soviet Zone of Austria. It fell to me to forge the name and date on an expired Soviet pass - the forgery was nothing compared to the problem of erasure.
Cover cannot always be created quickly in a desirable form. It is often necessary to resort to the process known as building cover, which is nothing more than engaging in actions which will increase the plausibility of the cover. I once Sent a man wandering aimlessly about Europe for eight months looking for just the right place to live, so that his final choice - a particular house in a particular city - would not seem prearranged.
Cover is not a durable commodity. By its very nature, some people have to be privy to the secret - to them cover is revealed, meaning disclosed under authorization - and obviously the more people who know, the greater danger of the cover being blown-meaning discovered or unauthorizedly disclosed. (1t is this fact which causes cover to be described as light or deep; obviously, the fewer persons to whom the cover is revealed, the deeper the cover.) The fundamental rule in all cover arrangements is that if cover is endangered, the operation is suspended until cover can be rebuilt or new cover developed. I once lost five urgent weeks obeying this rule.
Assigned temporarily to a foreign capital, my work necessitated my presence in one office, but my cover required my presence in another. This was solved by revealing the cover to one secretary in the cover office, who was supposed to take all my calls, state that I was out, and then give me the message where I was really working. When the inevitable happened, and the secretary fell ill, her temporary replacement took a call for me with the cheery remark, "Oh, he doesn't work here. He just comes in and picks up his mail occasionally." As the caller was a Belgian diplomat, it was decided to suspend the operation temporarily, and rebuild the cover by the simple expedient of having me spend a suitable time in the cover office. So I spent five empty weeks there, lunching twice during the period with the Belgian diplomat, and making sure that on both occasions he came to the office to pick me up.
At that I fared better than a colleague in neutral Turkey during the Second World War. A former journalist, he was working for General Donovan's organization in its formative days, when it was still the Office of the Co-ordinator of Information. My colleague showed up in Istanbul as a journalist. His second morning there, he came down to breakfast at his hotel to find the Turkish police awaiting him. They simply sat him down in a corner of the lobby and asked, "What is your connection with General Donovan?" After giving him plenty of time to protest that he was a journalist, had previously been in Turkey as a journalist, as they well knew, and had no connection with General Donovan, the police quietly handed him a long telegram. It was addressed to my colleague, and was composed entirely of five-letter code groups, except for the signature which succinctly read, "Donovan, Co-ordinator of Information." Within an hour he was on the train to the Syrian border, with plenty of time to visualize a new secretary in Washington, eager to please, obeying quite literally the order to "get that off to him in Istanbul right away.
The Turks can scarcely be blamed for being alert, even nervous. Only six months before, the British Minister to Bulgaria had arrived at the same hotel, with his entire staff, following the rupture of British-Bulgarian diplomatic relations. When the British diplomatic baggage was all finally assembled in the lobby, at least one part of it - to the mortification of one Britisher a bit negligent about technicalities - exploded and wrecked the place. It had only just been repaired when my colleague came to town.
On occasion, even blowing cover can be - don't anyone lose the thread here - part of cover. I once encountered an Englishman in Greece during the Civil War whom I had good reason to suspect was a covert agent - and he the same of me. He mentioned that he was working in a bank, and when I politely asked which one, he left in confusion. He came back to the same bar the next day - it's true what they say about some bars - and glancing at a piece of paper, said proudly, "About that bank. It's the Royal Corinthian Island and Specie Bank." (Or some such obvious concoction.) An intramural joke, of course - provided we were working to the same end. But if his mission was also to uncover and report on our activities, his cover could logically include partially blowing it to us to inspire our confidence. This kind of non-elevating thinking is necessary in the art of cover, but it is a poor agent who shows he is engaged in it. People do get suspicious, particularly of suspicion.